By Paul Metselaar, Chairman and CEO at Ovation Travel Group

In late April, we welcomed our American Express Global Business Travel (GBT) executive leadership team (ELT) from the US and UK to our new Ovation Travel Group office in Manhattan. It was the first time the members of the GBT and Ovation teams were meeting face-to-face since the two companies have joined forces – a deal made possible during the pandemic with videoconferencing solutions.

And while there certainly are benefits to tools like Zoom and Microsoft Teams, there’s no doubt in my mind that conducting business face-to-face is far superior to virtual meetings after seeing how thrilled everyone was to be back in the same room again.

From an evolutionary standpoint, we humans weren’t designed to stay isolated from one another and have most of our interactions via computer screens. It’s literally ingrained in our DNA to be social creatures. As part of the primate family, the most social of animals, we thrive in group settings. It’s key to our survival.

Of course, meeting in person after working remotely for more than a year can be strange at first – which is mind-boggling when you think about it. Learning and collaborating as a group is what we’ve known our entire lives, yet 18 months after a minuscule virus invaded the planet, many of us have forgotten what it’s like to be in each other’s physical presence.

Still, I witnessed how quickly that awkwardness evaporates when old colleagues reunite in real life. Masks may have been obscuring their smiles and fist and elbow bumps may have replaced handshakes and hugs, but the ELT members were genuinely happy to be back together in an office environment.

Unveiling our new office space

Not only was this meeting an opportunity for us to build a rapport with our new GBT colleagues but also a chance to enjoy our shiny new digs that we designed with care and have been barely able to use. We moved into this stunning space near Grand Central Station in December 2019 – four months before the pandemic transformed it into a ghost town.

At Ovation, we aim to give our employees the same special treatment we extend to our customers – which is why we spent months meticulously creating a sleek, modern office space our people would be inspired to work in, implementing special touches throughout.

During their visit, GBT’s leadership team especially loved the centerpiece in our reception room – a traditional split-flap departure board still seen at some train stations that makes the clack-clack-clack sound as the characters flip. It was programmed to change every so often to say things like “Welcome American Express Global Business Travel” and “Ovation + GBT, better together.”

Preparing for their arrival

As I noted earlier in my “Pandemic’s New Normal” article, the travel industry must work together to assuage clients’ concerns and fears about the travel experience and demonstrate that every possible step has been made to mitigate the risks associated with COVID-19. I believe a similar approach also should be employed as companies reopen their offices and invite employees back. If people are worried about their safety going into the workplace, it will only arouse feelings of apprehension and resentment.

To make GBT’s leadership team feel perfectly at ease, we made sure they understood everything we were doing to make it a safe gathering, from getting the office sanitized top to bottom to implementing health and safety protocols.

Our facilities manager worked closely with GBT’s team to make certain all Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines were being followed, such as daily temperature checks upon arrival, the wearing of masks, separation of seating, and the completion of a short COVID questionnaire and release form. We had extra masks and bottles of sanitizer on hand and displayed signage throughout the facility reminding people about social distancing rules.

Because we had communicated the measures we’d be taking ahead of the meeting, the ELT group understood what was required of them and happily complied with the rules.

Keeping our distance

The nice thing about our new Ovation space: because of the retractable walls and transportable furniture, we can easily transform the meeting rooms to suit our needs. With about 15 ELT members present, we decided to utilize our largest conference room for the event. We created a wonderful presentation room while also seating attendees far enough from one another to meet CDC guidelines and create a safe, relaxed atmosphere that is perfect for corporate meetings and events.

But this may be a challenge for us moving forward with the surge in interest from employees to gather in person – making sure we can comfortably accommodate all those coming into the office with social distancing measures in place. After the ELT meeting, we’ve been flooded with meeting requests from both Ovation and GBT.

But after nearly a year and a half of being isolated from one another, this is a glorious problem to have. You don’t realize how valuable sharing a moment with colleagues face-to-face is until this freedom we previously took for granted has been stripped. I’m delighted people are ready to come together after the pandemic forced us to remain apart. It’s a chance for us to be human again while still fulfilling the promise of care for our employees and clients.